Audubon Spotlight: Bethany Chan, A Designer for Others

Chan draws from the triumphs—and struggles—of building a global design cohort to create essential materials for Audubon’s conservation work.

Trail maps improved for readability, carefully organized magazine articles, t-shirts—these are just a few of the things Bethany Chan has helped bring to life as Audubon’s Walker Design Fellow.

Over the last several months, Chan has worked with Audubon’s design team to create forward-facing materials that enable Audubon’s community conservation efforts in an inclusive, accessible way, from development communications to colorful illustrations. No matter the scale, each project feels equally important.

“Once I realized the impact this work has on people in and outside of the organization, everything felt high-stakes to me,” Chan said.

As a designer, one of Chan’s central values is to consider the purposes, long-term effects, and legacies of the products and experiences that they create. Working on a document like the first edition of Audubon’s field safety manual was a huge undertaking, but Chan says that its future utility makes it a worthwhile effort. At more than 130 pages, the field manual is a first step in creating a culture of safety in Audubon’s on-the-ground conservation work. But it’s hardly a fixed document—it has already been revised a few times and will be updated continually based on the experiences of staff and volunteers who need it.

“Ultimately, the most important feedback comes from people who use [the manual],” they said. “As designers, we’re designing for others, but we don't always necessarily know what they need. It’s important to get other opinions to know if something is truly inclusive, especially with something as urgent as conservation.”

Chan’s impulse to use their design skills in service of others didn’t start, nor will it end, with the fellowship. During their second year at university, Chan helped co-found a design education nonprofit that started out as a sketching workshop in the summer of 2016. Chan enrolled in the workshop after their freshman year at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where they double majored in industrial and graphic design. They wouldn’t receive academic credits, nor would their instructor be paid, but everyone in the class showed up and committed to one another.

Image shows designed magazine pages, including a magazine cover with a grey bird and two pages with photos and text.

The group reorganized as a non-profit called Advanced Design after hosting regional events in the Midwest and experiencing rapid growth with an annual conference. As membership soared, its goals grew from peer networking to connecting with a global design community—which meant addressing barriers that push certain people out of design spaces, like racism, gender discrimination, burnout, and a lack of mental health resources.

“At first, we wanted to improve our skills and connect with like-minded individuals,” says Chan. “But the more we learned about the gaps in the industry, the more we wanted to bring light [to them].”

Chan’s still on the board and leading visual communication at Advanced Design, working with a team that helps level the playing field for beginners and professionals alike. But much like designing products for others, achieving this equity isn’t an easy or static process. They recall the pilot of the organization’s 12-week online design education program, Offsite, which connects aspiring design students to industry professionals, as a teaching moment. During its pilot launch in September 2020, Chan learned that missteps can still happen, even with preparation and good intentions.

“We had lots of hiccups, from the confusion in our application process to the gradual drop-off of students towards the end of the semester,” says Chan. “But it’s taught us a lot of valuable lessons—from how much students hate taking surveys to addressing workloads and burnout.”

According to Chan, connecting with their intended audience—the students—and practicing self-forgiveness was a large part of the revision process.

“As these issues come along, it can feel pretty helpless at first, but working on a team with such different minds helped us overcome these with various approaches,” says Chan. “It was also important for us as designers to take the time to listen and learn from [students] about oversights we missed along the way.”

While Chan’s resume also includes work at a furniture line and as a UI/UX contractor, they say they have found the most fulfilling work in the nonprofit sector. The desire to create meaningful experiences and build a more inclusive and diverse network drew them to the Walker Fellowship in the first place—its marriage of social justice with art and design was unlike any other role they saw.

Chan’s experience at both Advanced Design and at Audubon has cemented what they prioritize in a work environment and want to design in the future.

“I hope to do work that's both meaningful to myself and [builds] a more inclusive and diverse design community [for] BIPOC and marginalized designers,” says Chan. “I’ve seen the way I can help and touch people outside my immediate circle, and Audubon is really great at facilitating that with people—and birds.”